Ray Hunkins: Mountain West Conference Punts On Football Season — Who Called The Play?

in Column/Ray Hunkins

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By Ray Hunkins, guest columnist

In early August, the Mountain West Conference (“MWC”) announced an adjusted football schedule for the fall of 2020.

Just five days later the conference’s board of directors, citing concerns over health and uncertainties created by the coronavirus, overrode the decision and informed the public there would be no fall sports and no football season, a season that held much promise for our Cowboys.

The repercussions from the MWC decision were immediate and severe.

It is estimated the decision will cost the University of Wyoming $10 million to $15 million in lost revenue; this at a time when Wyoming state government generally — and the university specifically — are reeling from the combined effects of the coronavirus and the collapse of Wyoming’s energy economy.

The announcement dealt a blow to the morale of all concerned.

Sally Ann Schurmur, in her Aug. 16, 2020, column in the Casper Star-Tribune put it this way: “This is not something we will ‘get over.’ We are not being ‘ridiculous,’ ‘small minded’ or ‘selfish.’ This is a tragedy.” Indeed it is a tragedy. Sally’s eloquent eulogy for a lost football season reflects the feeling of many.

This was more than a decision about athletic competition. It was a public policy decision made by unelected higher education administrators, all but one from states other than Wyoming. 

The MWC’s board of directors, comprised of the presidents of the 12 member institutions, made the decision. If it turns out the presidents made the wrong decision, they will not be held accountable to most of the people and many of the institutions they have harmed.

“Where there is a will, there is a way” is an adage for the ages. Six of the 10 Division I Football Bowl Subdivision conferences had the will and found a way to play football. 

The service academies are playing. BYU is playing. Even our Wyoming high schools are playing.  The PAC 12 however, under the firm influence of California, Oregon and Washington and the politicians who run those states, opted not to play.

Are we to believe the schools that are playing football this fall were negligent or uncaring in choosing their courses of action? These schools say they can provide a safe environment. The Mountain West – at least the presidents who made the decision not to play– did not have the will, and therefore didn’t find a way.

There isn’t much transparency as to how or why the presidents’ decision was reached. Many questions are raised by the curious way in which the decision came about. 

For instance, why did the MWC Board cancel all fall sports such a short time after the conference office announced an adjusted football schedule? 

Who moved that the season be canceled? Who seconded the motion? What reports and written materials were given to the presidents? Who were the medical experts consulted and what advice did they give? Were there differences of opinion among the medical experts or among the presidents? 

Were the medical experts from the conferences that are playing consulted or even questioned? Did the presidents consult with the athletic directors, coaches, and governing boards of the institutions before voting on the motion to cancel the entire season?

What was their advice, or in the case of the governing boards, what direction was given? Can the transcript of the MWC board meetings dealing with this subject (and minutes of those meetings) be released and if not, why not? 

The president of San Jose State University, Mary Papazian, is currently the chair of the MWC board of directors.

She answers to a “chancellor” of the California State University system. So do the presidents of the other California universities that are members of the MWC — Fresno State and San Diego State. The Chancellor answers to a board that includes Governor Gavin Newsom and three other California politicians.

Those politicians are also members of the board of regents of the University of California system. Several of the schools in that system are members of the PAC 12 Athletic Conference which opted out of a fall football season. 

It could be argued that President Seidel of the University of Wyoming deserves some slack.

On the job for a month before being called on to cast such a consequential vote, he might not have had all the background and knowledge needed.

Nevertheless, in an interview he gave a lengthy defense of the MWC board’s decision and seemed to place himself in the deliberations from the beginning.

Reporter Davis Potter of the CST, in a room that appeared to be devoid of anyone else, interviewed Wyoming’s new president, dapper in suit and matching COVID-19 mask.

The interview was posted on YouTube. Unfortunately, the President’s words were muffled and garbled by reason of mumbling through the mask.  

From what could be discerned, President Seidel asserted the board’s decision was unanimous and based on the unanimous recommendation of medical experts advising members’ athletic departments.

According to the president, there were warnings of potential heart problems for athletes who might catch the virus. Although he parroted conclusions, no details were given and no evidence was offered. 

However, in an interview posted on the MWC website, Commissioner Craig Thompson seemingly contradicted Seidel by asserting the rationale for cancelling the season wasn’t anything more than “continued unknowns.” 

The commissioner went on to state the obvious regarding health concerns: “Different studies show different things, and it’s amazing that intelligent people can reach different conclusions.” 

It sounded like there was a smorgasbord of opinions available for the MWC board to choose from.

The MWC chose not to rely on the “different conclusions” of other medical experts. Were the conclusions chosen by the MWC board selected because they fit a desired narrative?

In a statement on its website, the MWC revealed, “numerous external factors and unknowns outside our control made the decision necessary.”

The MWC board embraced conclusions that other conferences and schools chose to reject. Why? What are the “external factors” that influenced the MWC board’s decision?

The action of a group (the MWC board) external to Wyoming is causing significant damage to the state, monetarily and in other ways. The lives and possible careers of student-athletes have been disrupted. What discussion took place at the board meeting about these factors?

The people of Wyoming deserve a full explanation for the MWC board’s decision. We need to know what “external factors” influenced the decision and whether another agenda was at work.

We need to know if President Seidel cast his vote at the direction of the board of trustees. We need the truth and we need transparency. Governor Gordon should see to it.

Tag: Ray Hunkins is a former president of the University of Wyoming Alumni Association, a former member of the University of Wyoming Foundation board of directors and was honored as a “Distinguished Alumnus” by the University in 2005.

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